Frist endorses stem cell research, angers abortion foes |

Frist endorses stem cell research, angers abortion foes

WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist endorsed government-funded research on human embryonic stem cells Friday, breaking with President Bush and the religious conservatives he’s been courting for a 2008 presidential bid. He drew praise from former first lady Nancy Reagan.”It isn’t just a matter of faith, it’s a matter of science,” Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon, said in a Senate speech. “The president’s policy should be modified.”Bush remained intent on vetoing the House-passed bill that would loosen his 2001 restrictions on funding of research using stem cells from days-old embryos in a search for cures to spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s and other diseases. Frist, a Tennessee Republican, called Bush around dinnertime Thursday to tell him in advance of his decision.”The president said, ‘You’ve got to vote your conscience,”‘ White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. The two appeared on friendly terms Friday when Frist appeared by the president’s side at a bill-signing ceremony.Mrs. Reagan, who also was called by Frist the night before, lavished praise on his decision. She began championing stem cell research while caring for her late husband, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for more than decade before his death last year, and she has lobbied Congress quietly.”Thank you, Dr. Frist, for standing up for America’s patients,” she said in a statement.She said on MSNBC she hoped Bush would now look at the issue differently and not veto the bill, a view echoed by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a cancer patient who is the measure’s chief sponsor in the Senate.”I know that the president will listen to what Senator Frist has to say,” Specter said. “I’m not saying he is going to agree with it. But what Senator Frist has had to say is weighty, and I think may bring us all together on this issue.”But anti-abortion religious conservatives, a key constituency for any aspiring Republican presidential nominee, swiftly made their negative reaction clear.”He cannot be pro-life and pro-embryonic stem cell funding,” said Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. “Nor can he turn around and expect widespread endorsement from the pro-life community if he should decide to run for president.”House conservatives were incensed.”I think the courageous speech would have been to continue to stand strongly in defense of the sanctity of life,” said Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey, himself a physician. “We will fight him on this to the very end.”House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who denounced embryonic stem cell research as “dismemberment of living, distinct human beings” during the House debate in May, called Frist “a good man … advocating a bad policy.”Because taking embryonic stem cells destroys embryos, Bush and many other conservatives equate the process with abortion and view it as immoral.But with recent polls showing that some two-thirds of Americans support embryonic stem cell research and a majority favor fewer restrictions on taxpayer funding of it, Frist’s speech could also help him win over moderates.His announcement came the same week that a group of supporters for the research, StemPAC, began a television ad in New Hampshire, site of the first 2008 presidential primary, criticizing Frist for not scheduling a vote on the issue. Frist said the Senate would debate and vote on the issue in the fall.Fifty Republicans in the House joined Democrats in passing the bill in May by a margin of 44 votes, not enough to override a presidential veto. Supporters predicted Frist’s endorsement would give the bill a veto-proof two-thirds majority in the Senate and added it might also turn some House votes.”My heart jumped a beat when I heard Senator Frist’s speech this morning,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of the bill. “His decision will generate new momentum for embryonic stem cell research and speed passage of this bill.”Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Frist’s decision “will bring hope to millions of Americans.”Supporters of the research said the announcement was unexpected.”If you had told us two weeks ago that he was going to do this today on the floor, I would have told you were crazy,” said Sarah Chamberlain, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which helped coordinate support for the House bill.Several Republicans close to Frist said he came to his decision after consulting with scientists at Stanford University and elsewhere and watching biomedical research advance overseasHe said the 22 lines of embryonic stem cells now available for research are deteriorating and don’t meet the needs of scientists searching for cures. Stem cells derived from embryos can develop into any kind of tissue in the body. Scientists are looking at ways to manipulate them to replace diseased or injured tissues.—The bills are HR 810 and S 471.Vail, Colorado

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